FRIDAY, May 8, 2009 (Health.com) – As if losing your job isn't bad enough, a new study suggests that people who are laid off are at higher risk of being diagnosed with health conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, and even arthritis than those who keep their jobs.
"It's particularly difficult to take good care of yourself, but maybe what this study can do is help people realize that it is precisely in that period right after a job loss when your health may be the most vulnerable," says study author Kate Strully, PhD, assistant professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Albany. "It's particularly important to manage stress in healthy ways and try to maintain good health habits and cope effectively."
Strully examined survey data from more than 8,000 workers, including 3,359 white-collar workers and 1,851 blue-collar workers, who answered questions about their health and work history three times—in 1999, 2001, and 2003. Strully conducted the study, which was published Friday in the journal Demography, when she was at Harvard University as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society scholar.
She found that people who had lost their job were 83% more likely to report a new health problem during the study than people who did not lose their job—even if they went on to find a new job. People who had lost a job had about a 10% chance of developing a new health problem during the study—such as heart disease, high blood pressure, or arthritis—compared to roughly a 5% chance for people who had never lost a job.
The risks seemed to be true for both white- and blue-collar workers, she says. "I would have expected to see less of an effect on white-collar than blue-collar workers but I don't," she says. "I see a similar effect."
To make sure the study subjects didn't have health problems or other issues that might cause them to lose their jobs, Strully specifically looked at people who lost their job because their place of business had shut down.
In a second analysis she looked at people who said they were laid off or fired by a business that didn't close. Strully found similar effects on health—although this time only in blue-collar workers, for reasons that are unclear.
Next page: Why job loss may be hazardous to your health
So how can job loss increase the risk of health problems? There are a lot of life changes that can go along with unemployment, including a loss of health insurance and income, and possibly a decline in healthy habits, says Strully.
"People may have more trouble quitting smoking after a job loss, or it's harder to eat a healthy diet," she says. "But additionally there's this issue of psychological stress that goes along with it."
It's possible that stress itself may be partly responsible for the link, she says.
"Some of the most common health conditions coming up were arthritis and heart disease and hypertension and cardiovascular conditions, which in large part are inflammatory-type responses," she says. "We know that inflammation is a common physiological response to stressors and psychological stress."
Experts have long known that there is a link between unemployment and poor health, but it wasn't clear if illness led to job loss, or vice versa. For example, people who are sick are 40% more likely to lose their job than those who are well. The new study is unusual in that it teased those factors and tried to get to the root of health problems that could have been caused by a job loss, say Strully.
"When we see that people who lost their job are sick, we don't know if they lost their job because they're sick or the job loss caused them to get sick," she says. "I could separate out people who had lost their jobs under different circumstances and various reasons."
Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, director of the Division of Health Psychology at Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus, Ohio, says, the results "likely underestimate the impact of job loss on health, if anything."
She says that her own and other research has shown that stress can increase inflammatory molecules such as interleukin-6, which are known to be higher in those with arthritis, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and osteoporosis. "And that's just the short list," she says.
"I think the role of stress related to job loss is much bigger than what was captured by the survey questions," says Kiecolt-Glaser, who was not involved in the study.
Now that unemployment in the United States is at 8.9%, the highest rate in 25 years, the health risks of unemployment might be even higher than the study suggests, says Strully. Although the economy had its ups and downs during the late 1990s and early 2000s, it's "nothing like what we're seeing right now," says Strully. "When [study subjects] lost their jobs many of them could expect to become re-employed relatively quickly.”
"I think what we are seeing now is not only an increase in job loss but also a broader economic change that is limiting alternative incomes," she says. "Common sense just says that it's going to be much harder to cope financially."